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Culture & Entertainment

In Conversation With: Kim Heirston

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Kim Heirston in front of Blessing Of The Fleet, taken on August 3, 2019, at the reception for Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown Parrish Art Museum. Painting in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art advisor Kim Heirston has certainly seen her share, both in the high-end pieces on which she educates, advises, and counsels her clients and also in the artists behind these works, artists who all too often have otherwise been overlooked and undervalued, arguably, as a direct result of gender and race. But not by Kim Heirston, who, clearly, knows a thing or two, not just about looking at art but about genuinely seeing it, not just about noticing artists but also about exposing their talents. And not just about enjoying the beauty she beholds, but also about sharing it with the world.

You’ve been in your respective art career for how many years? How did it all begin? 

I began my career as an art advisor in 1992; so, twenty-seven years. After studying Art History at Yale, I worked in a number of very high-profile galleries, including Pace and Robert Miller. I then landed a directorship at a less-than-high-profile gallery, which was known for its program of emerging artists. In preparation for our annual invitational, we would sift through literally hundreds of boxes of slides – I’m dating myself, now – to select artists whom we thought had that “secret sauce.” We wound up showing, for the first time, artists such as Vik Muniz and LA-based artist Doug Aitken. In my experience, nothing hones the eye like looking.

What exactly is a private art advisor?

An art advisor builds art collections by offering leading levels of market experience and art historical expertise. Education, research, and discretion are at the core of our practice. When asked, I often reply that I am part art educator, part curator, part interior decorator, part financial advisor, part high-end concierge, and, at a time, part couple’s counselor. 

Why did you decide to work in post-war, modern and contemporary art?

I started off in contemporary with the likes of Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Damien Hirst, among others. When these artists began hitting the $8,000,000 – $10,000,000 mark, I returned to my blue-chip gallery roots and began thinking about amazing works by such famous Abstract Expressionists as Adolf Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, and late Willem De Kooning, as well as the movement’s particularly undervalued women, such as Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler.  Only a few years ago, the highest price paid for a Helen Frankenthaler was roughly $800,000. In 2015, her SATURN REVISITED sold for $2,830,000, nearly quadrupling Sotheby’s’ high estimate. At that moment, Frankenthaler’s market changed on a dime. In brief, what I’m always looking for is value, and this is where the value was and is.

You have worked with many individuals on many levels, some being celebrities, and very high-profile individuals.  What have you learned from some of your clients?

I love this question, as I’ve learned so much from my clients. I like to say that the people I work with are artists in their own right. Whether it’s a private equity titan, a real estate mogul, or a media entrepreneur, I’ve often applied my clients’ rules and principles in guiding my own life. From the real estate developer, I’ve learned to always be aware of my bottom line. From the private equity titan, I’ve learned to state things as clearly and simply as possible and to NEVER hyperbolize. From the media entrepreneur, I have amassed the most amazing tools for my spiritual toolbox.

How does a client who is new to financial success and desires to start purchasing quality art for their home, get to someone like yourself?

Are you recommending me, Erica?  In all seriousness, I’ve been so blessed to have had amazing press throughout my career. However, traditionally, clients have come to me mostly through word-of-mouth. I am so grateful to have friends and clients who are my biggest publicists. Today, you can just as easily DM me on Instagram, at @kimheirston.

Is art an investment? Why?

Art is absolutely an investment, although it wasn’t always as liquid an investment as it is today. There are so many different types of auctions besides the main events at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillip’s; so many ways to make transactions more fluid. The caveat is that it does depend on precisely what you’re buying. The artwork must be high-quality, blue-chip, boasting a solid provenance, and in great condition. And this is where it gets tricky – because most art does not tick these boxes.

What advice would you give to someone looking for an art advisor?

If I were hiring an art advisor, I personally would want to know that they’ve studied Art History, because this shows a commitment, early on, to life in the arts. Chemistry is everything – you want to work with someone you enjoy being with. Having said that, of course, you want them to possess a knowledge borne from experience, either in a gallery or auction house. Spend time looking at art together to determine how much your potential advisor knows and if their tastes align with yours. Ask detailed questions to see if the “advisor” tries to fudge a response. Nothing is worse than someone who shoots from the hip; it speaks to inauthenticity and sloppiness, to someone who makes it up as they go. You don’t want this type of person handling costly acquisitions on your behalf.

What fulfills you personally as an Art Advisor?

I love nothing more than learning about Art History and sharing that knowledge with others. I’m in the process of re-reading Ninth Street Women, a book about five female artists – Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler – who helped to change New York City’s art landscape in the 1940s and 50s. The story details their struggles and challenges in shaping their careers. I think it’s interesting that, of the five, only one had a child, whom she effectively abandoned. I’m inspired by their struggle to define themselves in an era dominated by men; how they are only now being recognized, in terms of the market, for their genius. It’s a fascinating read – part Art History, part Real Housewives of New York!

In your opinion, which artist shall we be keeping an eye on at this moment?

There has been a significant upward shift with respect to African-American artists – Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, and Kehinde Wiley, to name a few. In May 2018, for example, Kerry James Marshall’s PAST TIMES sold to Sean “Diddy” Combs for $21,000,000 at Sotheby’s; the highest-ever figure for work by a living African-American artist at auction. Black women, however, are still lagging in the marketplace. Ellen Gallagher, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker are three artists who I believe are still terribly undervalued. Ellen is least known among the three, but she’s the hidden treasure.

What was a professional highlight of 2019?

Imagine getting a phone call at 4:30 am from one of the most powerful women on earth. At the time, I was in Perth, Australia, thirteen hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. I emerged from particularly deep meditation to check my voicemail, and heard: “Hey Kim, it’s Oprah!” That happened nearly a year ago. Oprah was calling to ask if I would select extraordinary artists of color for the first-ever, all-women Sotheby’s auction to benefit Miss Porter’s School. With Oprah and art philanthropist Agnes Gund at the helm, BY WOMEN, FOR TOMORROW’S WOMEN raised nearly $4,000,000 for underprivileged student scholarships to this exclusive girls’ academy.

I successfully solicited contributions from such blue-chip artists as Leslie Hewitt, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and the aforementioned Ellen Gallagher – whose watercolor ended up entering Oprah’s collection! Other, younger black artists currently making market waves are Tschabalala Self and Karon Davis. I was thrilled to support this cause and these remarkable artists. On the evening of the event, I looked out onto a sea of young women art professionals who had come out, in force, to support the cause.  In the audience, there were a number of ladies who had either worked or interned at our advisory; this made my heart swell with pride. What a fabulous start to 2019! I can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store for me!

What is Art Basel and what gets you most excited when attending whether it be in Basel, Hong Kong, or in Miami?

Art Basel in Basel is the king of kings. I love everything about this fair because it’s all about the art. I also adore the city itself. It is a peaceful, postcard-perfect town on the Rhine and a perfect, contemplative backdrop that fosters a serious approach to art. 

If you can purchase any piece of art today, what work would it be, by which artist and why?

Mark Rothko’s NO. 20 (YELLOW EXPANSE), which belonged to Bunny Mellon – the famous horticulturalists, philanthropist, and art collector. It would be like living with pure sunshine

Tell us something about art, art in your world is what?

Art in my world is everything!

Name one of your most defining characteristics.

Passion.

What is a nécessité in self-care for you

I begin each day with a green tea smoothie. Here’s the recipe: matcha, protein powder, soymilk, ice, banana, and stevia. Blend thoroughly, and enjoy unbelievable energy throughout the day. For skincare, I rely on a monthly Tracie Martyn red-carpet facial, as well as their firming serum, exfoliator, and shakti lotion. For hair, I can’t live without my hairstylist, Andrea Wilson.

What advice would you give a young woman looking to turn her dream into a reality? What challenges would you share with her as inspiration to keep moving forward?

I think the key to realizing a dream is perseverance. If you’ve created it in your mind, it’s something that can be done, no matter how many people tell you that it can’t. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, I hit a roadblock with respect to my profession. The darkness of the event compelled me to think deeply about my practice, and to wonder if I could be working in a more socially impactful career. Then, letters began to trickle in from clients, providing consolation and expressing gratitude for bringing the joy of art to their lives. I realized that in my own way, I do make a difference by bringing fresh ideas, beauty, and meaning to others. 

Running a business, household, and trying to maintain healthy relationships can all become overwhelming at times. What helps you to stay the course?

I’m very lucky that my husband, Richard, is incredibly supportive and understanding of my career demands. However, I’d say that the most crucial skill in maintaining this balance is time management, and, hopefully, always knowing how, when, and where to direct one’s energy in order to sustain work-life harmony. It’s also important to recognize when you need time to yourself to nurture and replenish. For me, the two rituals vital to maintaining equilibrium are my morning meditation and walk through the park  – or, on my beach, depending on the season.

Complete this sentence:

I am a nécessité because….

Nearly two decades ago, in a Vogue article, I stated that nobody “needs” an art advisor. I remember saying it in order to empower women to explore the possibility of art collecting on their own, provided they had the time and resources for the necessary research. Twenty years later, I think I’m going to reverse this statement. Today, that homework is overwhelming. Indeed, information about the arts is increasingly available – through rising platforms such as Artnet and Artsy, it’s literally at your fingertips. However, while data and information can be empowering, they can also be debilitating. There are so many artists, art fairs, galleries, magazines, platforms, et cetera, that I honestly think an art advisor truly is a nécessité, now more than ever, to help sift through the noise.

Photo credit: Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com

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